The number of Oregonians who could be tested for coronavirus each week now stands at nearly 38,000, according to new figures from the Oregon Health Authority, representing a 70% surge in reported testing capacity as most counties start a return to more normal life.
State health officials say the reported testing capacity grew from about 22,000 tests a week for two reasons:
Oregon is now receiving weekly deliveries of testing swabs and chemical reagents from the federal government and state officials have compiled a more comprehensive tally of testing options.
“I knew the numbers were going to jump like crazy,” said Rodney Hicks, Oregon’s newly hired testing strategy manager, who crunched the numbers used in the latest tally.
The sharp increase in capacity suggests Oregonians who may become infected with the coronavirus in the weeks or months ahead should not have trouble obtaining a test, as had been the case at the beginning of the pandemic. Oregon has already loosened its testing guidance to recommend testing for all individuals with qualifying symptoms, and state officials are mulling options to expand testing for people living in congregate care settings.
Oregon’s boost came last week as Gov. Kate Brown allowed 31 of 36 counties shuttered since March to reopen. State officials had said they wanted to ensure enough tests for 15,000 Oregonians each week to begin peeling back stay-at-home restrictions — a benchmark now far eclipsed.
In the past week alone, about 20,000 Oregonians received test results, marking a record. It now appears Oregon has more than enough supplies to increase the volume of testing as more residents are at risk of becoming infected as they return to their offices, to the gym, to get a haircut or to eat at restaurants.
Hicks said insufficient testing swabs and chemical reagents, used to extract evidence of the virus, had been holding back Oregon’s testing efforts. But in early May federal officials agreed to provide regular supplies to Oregon, he said, after weeks of “kicking and screaming” by Brown’s office and the health authority.
Federal officials had been prioritizing testing supplies for harder-hit states. As of Tuesday, Oregon haf identified 3,636 people infected out of nearly 100,000 residents tested, marking one of the lowest rates in the country at less than 4%.
“I think that put us on the, ‘They’re OK for now’ list,” Hicks said.
The OHA is now receiving about 11,000 to 12,000 swabs each week from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and about half as many reagents, Hicks said. State officials are taking orders from hospital labs and clinics across the state and sending out supplies.
“It literally comes in and usually within 24 hours it’s back out the door,” he said.
Hicks said Oregon’s surge in capacity is not only because of those supplies but also because officials have compiled a more thorough testing list.
Oregon’s overall capacity has at times been cloaked in secrecy. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and epidemiologist, told The Oregonian in mid-April that he didn’t know the state’s capacity and suggested a reporter ask individual labs — even though the health authority had been keeping a running tally for weeks.
State officials have now created a new count including far more locations. Rather than focus on the lab capacity at large hospital or health care systems and the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory, the new tally focuses on collection capacity in even more locations. It includes county public health departments and smaller clinics, among others.
“I’m counting everything,” Hicks said.
The precise math behind the state’s new calculations is murky.
One state spreadsheet lists daily testing totals that equal nearly 38,000 a week, even though the totals don’t appear to be supported by line items in the same document.
A different spreadsheet lists daily totals that are nearly just as large, based on information collected by state officials or reported by providers. Hicks said he then used those counts as a baseline but scaled them back by a certain percentage, based on the availability of supplies, to arrive at nearly 38,000 tests a week.
“There’s a lot of people doing work behind the green curtain to make those numbers appear,” he said.
Hicks, who said his doctorate degree is in health care supply chains, joined the health authority on a temporary assignment April 24. He lives in Oregon but works as the supply chain director for a California-based company, Evolve BioSystems. Hicks said he plans to work for the state for about three months before returning to his regular job.
“They definitely knew what they needed, which is why I got the call,” he said of the health authority. “I was really impressed by them going, ‘OK, we know where we are, this is where we have to get, and let’s fill it.’”
Hicks, 49, said he previously had done some work with Oregon’s chief medical officer, Dr. Dana Hargunani, who recruited him.
“It’s such a great cause. How could you not?” he said of joining the state during the pandemic. “It’s a cause for all of us.”